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How Setting Can Create Tension

The Girl In The Photograph by Kate Riordan

For me, a strong and memorable setting is a huge part of any story. I’ve been entertained and diverted by books where setting doesn’t play much of a role, but the fiction that really stays with me – and made me want to be a writer in the first place – is the kind where the characters inhabit a distinct and tangible world I can see, smell and ultimately lose myself in. A powerful setting doesn’t just anchor a story in a particular time and place, help drive the plot and even influence the characters who play against its backcloth. It can also help the writer ratchet up the tension in their narrative, and keep the reader turning those pages.

Perhaps the most obvious way of doing this is by positioning characters in opposition to nature, usually in a place unfamiliar to them. The wind gets up and thunder rumbles in the distance as a great storm draws closer. No one would claim there’s anything startlingly original about this approach but it’s used again and again for a reason: it works. The environment is one of the few things we humans have little control over and, even today, language about the weather is frequently couched in dramatic terms: the ‘threat’ of rain, for example. ‘Pathetic fallacy’ – where the inanimate is bestowed with human characteristics – can also emphasize this sense of man at the mercy of pitiless nature. Ruskin, who coined the term and meant it pejoratively, wouldn’t approve, but I’m quite partial to trembling leaves, cruel seas and sinister houses that want you gone. Used sparingly, they can, almost literally, bring a scene to life.  

But it’s not only filthy weather and a hostile environment that can be employed to raise readers’ hackles. A summer’s day can be innocuously sunny and warm or – as I tried to convey in my book – stiflingly close and oppressive; the unnerving calm before the storm. The reader will understand, probably on a subconscious level, that something is about to happen. Sometimes referred to as ‘sympathetic background’, the setting serves as a mirror, reflecting the emotions of the characters and foreshadowing twists and turns in the plot. Emily Brönte’s wild moors and howling gales in Wuthering Heights perfectly complement Cathy and Heathcliff’s stormy, elemental passion. In The Girl in the Photograph, a violent rainstorm and flooding stream presage my pregnant character Alice’s waters breaking early. 

I’ve always been drawn to gothic literature because its settings are so inextricably woven into the story. As well as isolating its protagonists in a series of lonely houses miles from the rest of civilisation (see Jamaica Inn, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Flowers in the Attic) – the narrative is usually peppered with references to darkness and shadow. As animals with relatively poor eyesight, we are vulnerable in the dark and we know it. Think of Susan Hill’s Eel Marsh House in The Woman in Black. What could be more chilling than to be left overnight on the wrong side of a treacherous marsh, the tide rising to cut off the mainland, and the house enveloped in gloom and fog? 

Writers like Stephen King use a different kind of setting to isolate their characters – and simultaneously infect the reader with a mounting sense of dread. In King’s case this is the rotten heart beneath the wholesome, apple-pie surface of small town America, and is executed brilliantly in books like It and Salem’s Lot. Gillian Flynn does something similar in her books, perhaps most explicitly in her compulsive first novel, Sharp Objects

From a writer born on our side of the pond, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is founded on the same principles: flip over the surface of an apparently benign seaside town and a dangerous criminal underbelly emerges. Settings like this exude a subtle kind of menace that grows to an almost unbearable pitch. What’s so effective is that only the protagonist(s) and the loyal reader appreciate the lurking peril, while everyone else sleepwalks towards danger. Or – somehow worse – everyone else sleepwalks past it, leaving the protagonist to face the threat alone (there’s that isolation again). Greene’s opening paragraphs convey this perfectly. From the arresting first line – ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him,’ – to the description of the resort’s ‘bewildered multitudes’ arriving by train and the ‘fresh and glittering air’, the reader is put on high alert, almost as jittery as the doomed Hale himself.

In a nutshell, an effective setting can do a lot of the writer’s work for her or him. Tension that would otherwise have to be expressed through dialogue and characters’ thoughts and mannerisms alone is suddenly underpinned and reinforced, coloured in and leaping off page – a whole other world that lures the reader inside and keeps them there.

 Find out more about Kate Riordan's debut novel, The Girl In The Photograph, on her website and follow her on Twitter here. Take a look at Kate discussing her novel in the place that inspired it - Owlpen Manor.